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Shooting for after-school success

Kensington Soccer Club continues outreach with after-school program expansion

Jeremiah Jones, Zion Perez and Cassidy Thomas show off their ball control with coach Jakeema Burton at Willard’s practice.

By Melissa Komar

Jakeema Burton shouts “four,” and two students race toward a soccer ball in the middle of the Frances E. Willard School gymnasium.

The students kick the ball back and forth until one scores and return to the sidelines.

Burton calls another number and two more students rush to gain possession of the ball.

The routine continues for another 20 minutes and then the students are divided into lines and play against Burton and other coaches.

It’s a typical practice at the Kensington elementary school.

Willard is one of 12 Kensington Soccer Club after-school programs in the area.

Added in January, it is one of the newest sites that serve a combined 250 children.

“Since we started in 2010, we’ve run a few after-school programs for small numbers of students, but last year we made a commitment to dramatically increase our after-school work,” said Jim Hardy, founder of KSC.

Other participating locations in the River Wards include H.A. Brown schools, Penn Treaty school, Towey Playground, McVeigh Rec Center, Iglesia del Barrio, Stetson school, McKinley school, Moffet school and Hunter school.

Pilot programs were introduced at McKinley, Moffet and Hunter last year, and the remaining locations were added in January.

Since 2012, KSC has received an annual grant from the United States Soccer Foundation and J.T. Dorsey Foundation to run the Soccer for Success curriculum with its in-house soccer league. KSC also raises additional funds for the program.

The U.S. Soccer Foundation requires KSC to reach 195 kids, but the soccer club “found that there were a lot of children that wanted to join, but didn’t have the home support to get to practices and games in the evenings and weekends,” according to Hardy.

So, KSC decided to bring soccer to the children.

“We hate the idea of children being denied the opportunity to participate just because they don’t have access to transportation or support at home,” he said. “So, we kept our traditional evening and weekend programs, but we also added after-school programs so we can reach children where they are and break down every barrier to participation.”

The after-school programs run for about 20 weeks, and practices are held two to three times a week.

Each site is funded differently. For some sites, grant money covers the entire cost while at other sites, partner organizations provide some of the funds or join with KSC to run fundraisers.

Regardless of where the funding comes from, KSC does not take any money from the sites.

“We’re able to save money since myself and three other volunteer board members are the program coordinators, but we still need more donations,” Hardy said. “We just kicked off a fundraising campaign to help us keep the programs going strong until the school year ends. We have an anonymous donor matching all gifts to help us reach our $5,000 goal at kensingtonsoccer.org.”

Because KSC offers the after-school programs free of charge, another nonprofit usually helps run the program.

At Willard, it’s the school staff.

Children were charged a $10 fee to participate, which included a T-shirt, water bottle and snack before each practice.

School-based teacher Kelly McCloskey manages the program at Willard, which sees about 35 to 40 students per practice.

“If someone is sick or there’s a discipline issue, I’m the one calling home,” she said.

At 3:30 p.m., McCloskey, along with coaches from KSC, herds the group of about 30 second-grade students from the cafeteria to the gym.

Practice begins with what coach Jacob Robinson calls “circle time.”

“We talk about how their day went and talk to any of the kids after practice that need it,” he said. “We give them an outlet and we also let them be kids. Soccer is a tool to reach out to kids and make them feel safe and deal with emotions.”

After circle time is a “goofy game” such as Duck, Duck, Goose or Sharks and Minnows to let the students loosen up prior to getting into skills and technique.

Following the curriculum of Soccer for Success, benchmarks were used in January for each student including a timed run and weight.

Skills taught range from ball control to passing.

Some type of nutrition lesson is tied into each practice.

“It might be a brief talk about fruits and vegetables and then we’ll incorporate that into a game,” Robinson said. “If we’re playing freeze tag, the student might have to say one of the fruits we talked about to get unfrozen.”

Nutrition is a perfect match for the healthy lifestyle program Willard works to instill in its students, according to school counselor Teresa Bronte.

Bronte read an article about KSC and reached out to Hardy hoping to give students another opportunity to be active.

“We are trying to increase our after-school extracurricular activities and thought it would be awesome with the physical activity,” she said. “And, a lot of our kids don’t get out because most of our families don’t have cars to travel. Our goal is to increase access and make it easier for the families.”

McCloskey agrees and pointed out since participating in the KSC program, students received opportunities they might not otherwise have.

“Through KSC, students received an opportunity to go to a Union game. They had free tickets,” she said. “That’s another opportunity they may have not had.”

For the students, it’s all about having fun.

“You can learn how to play soccer,” said Carlos Pena, 7. “And the best part is when I score and get a point for my team. That makes me happy.”

Scoring goals is 8-year-old Glenn Rodriguez’s favorite aspect of the program, too.

“I like to score goals,” Glenn said. “You get to play games and learn how to run faster. But mostly, I like to score goals.”

Cassidy Thomas, 7, likes the competition and learning new skills.

“It’s cool that you get to play against the coaches,” Cassidy said. “I like passing and receiving. And I learned to kick with my foot.”

For the coaches, the program is just as rewarding.

“The most rewarding part is being 100 percent frustrated and thinking you’re failing and then you see the kids do stepover and then you know it’s working,” said Burton, who started playing for KSC before transitioning to coaching a few years ago.

Seeing that progress makes the time spent with the students worthwhile.

“It started as a mass of second-graders chasing a ball to them actually spreading out because they know how to pass now,” said Robinson, who joined the KSC coaching staff this year after coaching in Maryland.

Aside from teaching the students to play soccer, the curriculum also incorporates anti-violence education so KSC’s impact goes beyond the field, according to Hardy.

“We want them to grow physically as soccer players, but we also want them to grow mentally for when they make decisions outside of soccer,” Burton said.

“We definitely want them to appreciate physical activity, especially soccer,” Robinson said, “but, we also want to teach them how to deal with problems and want to invest in them and let them know that people care about them.”

Willard hopes to expand the program to additional grades next year, but for now, the impact on the second-grade students is a good start.

“It’s a good outlet for them because a lot of them don’t get to play outside and it’s very important to the school to promote healthy lifestyles, so it fits well with our health and wellness program,” McCloskey said. “And it allows them to socialize. A lot of our kids wouldn’t get the chance to play organized sports, so this is perfect.”

For more information about Kensington Soccer Club, visit kensingtonsoccer.org.

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